This is a story that I read at a Tenx9 event, themed as The Road, at the Normanville Hotel on the Fleurieu Peninsula of South Australia on Saturday August 24, 2019. Most of the cultural references will mean nothing to non-Australians and anyone under 50 but the assembled crowd seemed to enjoy it.
For the uninitiated, a roadie is essentially the invisible dog’s body for a band. He transports their gear, arrives well before the band to set up their amps and mikes and the rest of their kit and test it all. He then does the same in reverse when the gig is over, leaving well after the band. Reliability, muscles, some basic electrical knowledge and a van are the essentials, along with a high threshold for boredom and exploitation. Musical aspirations and opinions are actively discouraged.
When I was a music-obsessed, musically ungifted and less than committed uni student in the 1970’s, I supplemented my meagre student allowance by working as a roadie for various bands, starting in the Diamond Valley, north-east of Melbourne. My hope was that I would eventually be earning enough to do it for a living and spare a generation of high school students from my mediocre teaching skills.
I made some dumb decisions and some good ones when I was chasing work. The dumbest was when a mate told me about a local band looking for a new roadie. He said they were called Frame and they dressed up in crazy costumes and make-up and the lead singer was a bloke called Shirley. I told him they didn’t sound like they’d be going anywhere anytime soon. Six months later they changed their name to Skyhooks, toured Australia for the next 7 years, and my mate changed my name to Dickhead. Years later, Shirley moved in over the road from me and I told him this story. He laughed like a drain.
The best decision I made was when I was invited to an interview for a roadie job with a band who had a couple of regular gigs in large suburban pubs in Melbourne. Sitting in the bar with their manager, I heard the brass section of the band start up in the lounge, followed by the lead singer’s voice sending chills down my spine. I said to the manager ‘Who owns that incredible voice?’ He grinned and said ‘That’s our lead singer, Jeffery.’
‘Jeffery’ turned out to be Jeff Duff and the band was called Kush, a nine-piece outfit that specialised in covers of big brass jazz-rock fusion bands like Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears. I happily lugged their gear, including a Hammond organ, on my own for a year and was rewarded with some remarkable moments for my unremarkable wages.
By the time I met the Australian rock legend Johnny O’Keefe in 1977, I was working for a middle-of-the-road pub band called Haydown. They played the classic hits that suburban and country audiences wanted to hear. Hardly rock and roll heaven but it was work. Johnny had been booked to sing at the Marysville pub, with Haydown as his backing band.
As the band travelled to Marysville, everyone was excited to be working with a household name, albeit someone who had long been considered a has-been. Johnny had presented the TV shows Six O’Clock Rock and Sing Sing Sing in the late 50’s and early 60’s. He was more of my older sister’s era but everyone knew about Johnny and his music, as well as his psychiatric issues, his car crashes and his battles with drugs and alcohol. The tsunami of the Mersey sound and US West Coast rock swept over him in the mid-60’s and his career never recovered.
As the band was setting up, Johnny’s manager arrived and, handing out sheet music and a running list, said there would be no rehearsals or sound check. I remember him using the phrase ‘it’s not rocket science’. Which was just as well because the lead guitarist was the only one who could read music and he would signal and mouth the chord and key changes as needed during the show.
In those days, for a pub band, the electronic mixer that attempted to balance the instruments and the vocals was a fairly crude affair. I would sit facing the band, fiddling with a handful of slide controls that didn’t have much subtlety between flat out and stop. The egos of the musos meant the agreed settings for the band were routinely ignored, making my job hit and miss at best, but all that was irrelevant anyway to this crowd, who just wanted it loud.
As I sat at the mixing desk just before kick-off, double-checking everything, a waitress old enough to be my grandmother appeared at my side with a jug of beer and a glass. As I was thanking her profusely, she leaned over and whispered in my ear ‘With eyes like yours, you’re going to break a lot of hearts’ and then scurried away.
The place was packed, including a large contingent of men with slicked down ducktail haircuts and women with wide skirts supported by half a dozen starched white petticoats. In country towns the bodgies and the widgies lived on.
Unlike many of the pubs we worked, there would be no trouble here tonight. No drunken brawls where I’d have to use a mike stand to repel idiots trying to get on the stage and trash the instruments. Of course, the band would have disappeared out the back before that point, sheepishly re-appearing when calm had been restored.
The band had worked their way through their usual sets and now it was time for Johnny.
The only spotlight the pub had was trained on Johnny as he made his entrance, resplendent in his tailored red suit. Our lead guitarist intoned ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the king of Australian rock and roll, Mr. Johnny O’Keefe’ and the crowd rose as one as he launched into a strangely stiff and unwild version of The Wild One.
As he progressed through all the old hits like She’s My Baby, I’m Counting on You, Move Baby Move and She Wears My Ring, I could sense an uneasiness in the crowd. Like me they seemed to be thinking ‘well, he’s here but he isn’t’ but they were tempering their disappointment out of respect for The King and what the tickets had cost them.
There was the usual fake finish and the crowd played their part in demanding more. He was going to finish with his famous call-and-response hit, ‘Shout’, allowing the audience to vocalise their devotion.
And that was when disaster struck for me and for Johnny. He was half-way through the famous opening sustained holler of ‘We-e-e-e-e-e-e-ll’ when his microphone died. This was long before the days of radio microphones. The fault could be anywhere from the mike itself to the lead connected to it to the lead’s connection to the amplifier to ….. the list went on and on. Beginning with the band and then spreading to the crowd, eyes bored in to me, demanding an immediate solution.
With no time to find the fault, I ran to the stage, grabbed the protesting lead guitarist’s mike and trailed the lead out to Johnny, who was standing motionless and impassive in the middle of the floor, staring a thousand yards into the distance. As I handed the mike to him, scarlet from head to toe, I said lamely ‘sorry, Johnny’. As I looked into his vacant and unresponsive eyes he mumbled ‘that’s alright, mate’.
I scrambled back to my desk, praying to the God of Roadies that everything would work out and it did. ‘W-e-e-e-e-e-ll, you know you make me wannna shout …..”
After the standing ovation and the refusal of more encores, Johnny’s manager bundled him into a car and they sped off into the night.
After I’d packed up, I trudged through the bitterly cold night back to the motel (unaccompanied, despite my supposedly irresistible eyes). I collapsed into bed, only to be immediately made wide awake again by the icy starched sheets and was haunted by what I’d just seen.
Within a year, in 1978, Johnny was dead from a drug overdose, at the age of 43.
The granny waitress is either the world’s oldest woman or well in her grave and I suspect the latter.
Shirley died in a helicopter crash in 2001.
And the Marysville pub burnt down in the Black Saturday fires of 2009.
But Jeff and I are still on our own versions of the circuit, until we run out of road.